Nerd’s Eye View: The Slow and Painful Death of Saturday Morning Cartoons

(Note: This post was originally published at Brandon Melendez’s Nerd’s Eye View in December 2010. Since then a few good Saturday Morning Cartoons have popped up, but the case outlined here still applies)

Recently I’ve found myself being even more nostalgic than usual. By recently I mean in the past 9 months or so—the time that has passed since my son was born. As a nerd, I try to stay fairly aware of the children’s fads of the times—cartoons, toys, video games of all sorts, comic books: the things that generally nerds of my caliber refuse to give up. As such I have looked upon, with horror, the state of cartoons in this day and age. I have noticed that with the advent of Cartoon Network and other twenty four hour cartoon fair the quality of new cartoons has dropped drastically. This is a view I hold in complete abstraction from my views on music, movies, and general television not being as good as they used to be respectively.

I have a theory that, by and large, cartoons have diminished in quality because—as an art form—they can afford to.  “Hold the phone,” you might say to me “what the hell are you talking about?” Allow me to explain. You see, when I was a child there was a thing called “Saturday Morning Cartoons” and it was just about the only place you could get brand new cartoon episodes and series. There were a few exceptions—the syndicated Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon (not to be confused with the SatAM version) and the Disney Afternoon are notable ones. By and large, however, there was little to be had in the new cartoon department during the week and at best you might get some reruns of Saturday Morning favorites between 2 and 4 in the afternoon before reruns of Charles in Charge or Growing Pains would come on.  Honestly while syndicated afternoon cartoons were appreciable and provide memorable characters for shows like Duck Tales and Gargoylesthese shows couldn’t hold a candle to the splendid glory of Saturday Mornings. Once cartoons lost their special spot on Saturday mornings due to the advent of twenty four hour cartoon channels the bar started to fall significantly in the realm of quality causing a slow and painful death for the institution known as Saturday Morning Cartoons.

In my day, Saturday Morning Cartoons were the shit. Speaking from my perspective as a  survivor of the pre-cable, rabbit ear age, Saturday mornings were super special because, not only wasn’t there any school but all my favorite TV shows would be on until the Soul Train rolled in. All the major channels were running cartoons, so choices always had to be made. Tough choices. NBC, ABC, and CBS went hard against each other- there was a time the call came down toSuper MarioThe Real Ghostbusters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—let me tell you I had an easier time picking out my son’s name than choosing among those shows. Eventually local networks got in the mix and so the WB 11 and Fox 5 adding shows like Animaniacs and The Tickto the list of choices. It was pretty rough.

There was even something of a war for supremacy among the networks over the best Saturday morning line up. I remember when ABC revamped their morning shows in the mid to late 90’s to the “One Saturday Morning” format. ABC was offering a mix of shows like the SatAm version of Sonic the Hedgehog (by and far a better cartoon than its weekday morning counterpart), Reboot, and more sitcom-like show’s like Disney’s Doug and Pepper AnnThis was around the time Fox Kids started trying to rebrand itself and WB Kids! was pushing a DC Comics oriented line up. CBS and NBC lost out, at least as far as I was concerned. NBC specifically had dropped cartoons altogether after flops like MacCaulay Culkin’s Wish Kid washed out and interest was lost in sponsored fair like Super Mario World and Captain N: The Game Master.

All of that is gone now. While the money grab for merchandising continues it seems that the best cartoons to be found are shown at night or during the afternoons and that these cartoons are more often than not properties from some crossover area such as movies or comic books. That, in and of itself, is not so terrible—after all merchandising has brought us G.I. JoeTransformersMasters of the UniverseThe Real Ghostbusters, and many more money grab style cartoons of greatness. The problem is that shows of the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh or Beybladefranchises have very little heart. Sure Playmates made an action figure out of every extra character or prop they could manage from the Ninja Turtles show but the cartoon itself had some worth to it out side of the industry it became. The same could be said for any of the shows of my youth—including imports like Voltron.

The problem is really in sustainability (which granted Pokemon, now on the air in one form or the other for maybe its 14th or 15th season is prettysustainable). Even merchandised shows are planned to run for maybe a year or two (see Spectacular Spider-Man, Iron Man Armored Adventures, Wolverine and the X-Men, TMNT, the

They're tiny, they're toony. They're all a little looney. Get it?

newer Transformers, and whatever drivel CBS is putting out) and then not run any more. Or maybe they aren’t planned to run short but just can’t capture the attention of today’s youth because of the flooding in the market; which effectively explains the success of Pokemon—there’s very little story and lots to buy into. Kids are more impressed with the stuff than the lead in. Merchandized shows have become little more than commercials—quite a feat I assure you because the cartoons of my childhood were pretty good at stealing my parent’s money—especially Ninja Turtles, X-Men, and Ghostbusters. Shows that seem to have some shelf life are ones that run, ironically, in the mornings and afternoons—like Camp LazloTotal Drama Island, and Flapjack.

‘Nuff Said

It could just be that I am an old codger, but there seems to be a dying breed of cartoons that are aimed at both adults and children, that have a degree of sustainability, and don’t resort to out and out bathroom humor (I’m no prude but…come on!) or wildly incomprehensible stories. Cartoons likeTiny Toons Adventures and Muppet Babies that can bridge generations in both content and character interest are hard to come by—even in the face of a relentless wave of nostalgic relaunches of old franchises.

Recently a friend of mine, one Mrs. Jodie Milmore, did a solid favor to my son and sent him his very own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—the whole original series. In watching the series…for the benefit of the 9 month old…I have found many similarities to the cartoons I am now lambasting with my old-manitude but have found many high points that are lacking in newer fare. Reverence of its irreverence is one of them. TMNT Classic nods to parents often about the absurdity of its nature and breaks the 4th wall often to make side comments while not detracting from the half-baked science of  “mutagen ooze” or “reversing the polarity” of any device to fix a problem. (Note: not all technologies deal in “polarities” and if they do they may not make said device function to the opposite of its intended use) It does not use any recycled animation that I have been able to observe, and the toys seem dictated by the stories and not vice-a-versa. These claims cannot be made by shows such as Pokemon, or Yu-Gi-Oh in-so-far as I can tell.

When compared to the somewhat more action packed and seriously toned TMNT the original’s plots are silly, its characters make no sense (even as archetypes), and it is not really tied into the origin or spirit of the original Eastman and Laird comic series. In many ways one might argue that it is a watered down version that panders to its audience with an over abundance of pizzas. The newer show has a fun but more action oriented tone and a catch phrase that would have been taboo in my childhood, but harmless nonetheless. TMNT Classic had the turtles shouting “Turtle Power!” into battle while TMNT has them exclaiming “What the shell?!?” at appropriate junctures. These two catch phrases sort of capture the essence of the difference. The comparisons are delved into more deeply in the made for TV movie “Turtles Forever” in which the two show’s turtle clans team up in a cross-dimensional adventure. I’ll refer you to it, as a fan of both shows, as a worthwhile expression of the nod towards self-aware silliness I mentioned before.

This still leaves other Saturday morning fare. There is usually some kind of Sonic the Hedgehog series out that is really not that good, and a slew of Japanese imports that, in my opinion, have been imported solely for the reason that they are Japanese or have a marketing potential in toy stores. In short, the current state of Saturday morning cartoons can be distilled to a simple point—they aren’t memorable. Most of the cartoons my son is going to grow up with are going to very forgettable; there is no war for supremacy in making the hard choice in a limited time slot so networks can afford to put out whatever drek they want. Throw enough shit against the wall and eventually something will stick, if the show fails they made their money back in selling the advertising space anyway.

This is glaringly obvious to anybody who cares to think about it long enough—the ideas aren’t there anymore. Think about it. Why are there so many reboots of old shows? Because they know that they made money on that idea once and nostalgic old mid-twenties codgers like me are more willing to shell out the cash for something that they are already familiar with than a piece of shit show that’s gonna be cancelled next month. Unfortunately, the reboots get cancelled quickly too. When I was a kid they had reboots and revisionings as well.Flintstone KidsA Pup Named Scooby DooMuppet Babies, Alvin and The Chipmunks, Tom and Jerry KidsTiny Toon Adventures,

The Bedrock Flintstone Kids!

Popeye and Son, Mighty Mouse (a lot of them just took older cartoons and made them into younger childlike and 80′s awesome versions or added a slew of new characters or sitcom elements) so I’m not asserting that this is a new phenomenon. Sometimes there were shows like Punky BrewsterAlf, Ed Grimly,  The Addams FamilyThe Real Ghostbuters, G.I. Joe (by the way the Sgt. Slaughter WWF crossover idea remains brilliant to this day–cross promotion baby!), or any Marvel or DC property that were just cartoon versions of another entity. I’m just saying that most of these shows had some longevity to them–some did disappear rather quickly because they should have never been made ,but it seems that the balance in this matter has shifted to the crap side. So now I have to raise the weird kid, the kid who knows all about the 30 year old cartoons and hates the new stuff, the kid that is gonna have crazy old school pop culture knowledge and always feel outside of his generation because most of the new cartoons suck. But then again maybe my parents generation felt the same way, maybe its like music and the generation rift is often too wide to over come. I don’t know. But hopefully after these messages quality will be right back.

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